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Avoiding a ‘summer of discontent’ for retail

By Charlotte Rees-John, partner and head of Irwin Mitchell’s consumer goods and services sector.  The latest official figures show trade union membership in the UK is… View Article


Avoiding a ‘summer of discontent’ for retail

By Charlotte Rees-John, partner and head of Irwin Mitchell’s consumer goods and services sector. 

The latest official figures show trade union membership in the UK is on the rise but that most of the growth is within the public sector with 220,000 individuals joining in 2020.

Although unions can provide many benefits to workers, including higher wages, better working conditions, and improved job security, the total percentage of unionised employees in the private sector has continued to fall and is around 13%.

This decline has been attributed to several factors, including the decline of traditional industries and the rise of the service sector, as well as changes in employment law and the political climate.

A proportion of businesses in the UK want to avoid becoming unionised and it could be argued that this has contributed to the UK having one the lowest rates of trade union membership in the developed world. Although unions can force recognition via the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC), an independent body that deals with disputes between employers and trade unions, most private organisations prefer to voluntarily agree to collective bargaining if the majority of their staff are in favour of recognition. That’s because the CAC process is rigid, time consuming and expensive. And, once the recognition agreement is in place, it becomes legally binding, and employers can’t attempt to terminate it for at least three years.


Earlier this month it was reported that workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Coventry had started a fresh round of strike action in a dispute about pay during the cost-of-living crisis.

The GMB union claim to have signed up hundreds of new members in the workforce in Coventry and at other Amazon sites across the country since the beginning of the dispute. According to the union, more than 600 workers took part in the recent two three-day stoppages, whilst previously 300 staff were involved.

Although this dispute relates to warehouse workers, there’s concern in some quarters that what might appear to be an isolated incident within one business could spread more widely within retail throughout the rest of the year as inflation continues to bite.

Here are five things for retailers to consider if they want to discourage union recognition.

Recognise staff efforts 

Bearing in mind that most recent strikes have been in connection to the increased cost of living, it’s important that businesses maintain competitive pay practices. It doesn’t always have to be about the monthly salary however as recognising hard work and innovation, while celebrating teamwork and growth milestones, can go a long way in terms of ensuring colleagues feel fairly treated and recognised.

Introduce a Works Council 

Introducing a works council can be highly effective. This consultative body, made up of management and colleagues, can inform and consult with the workforce about employment and business-related matters. Although in some cases they can complement a trade union, in other scenarios they can help avoid the requirement for one.

Create an open workplace

A works council helps to make employees feel more secure and part of the decision-making process. Even if an organisation doesn’t have one or plan to introduce one, it’s important to allow colleagues to air their concerns easily. Another option is to introduce workplace representatives (which the staff appoint) who can raise specific issues with management as and when they occur or to have a something as simple as a suggestion’s forum online. Whatever approach is taken, it’s sensible to encourage staff to speak out and encourage senior personnel to operate an ‘open door’ policy.

Fair dispute resolution practices

Businesses should solve and be seen to resolve any disputes early, objectively, and amicably using standard company procedures. Many organisations offer workplace mediation as an alternative to a formal grievance process.

Involve colleagues in decisions

Finally, organisations will benefit from engaging colleagues in their progress and journey. It’s vital that company information is shared in an easily accessible way and at a stage where colleagues input can make a realistic difference to the decisions being taken. Transparency and honesty and key to gaining colleague’s trust.

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